On this date in 1570, Russian tsar Ivan IV Grozny — Ivan the Terrible — carried out one of his most infamous and horrible atrocities with hundreds executed on Red Square.
We find ourselves in 1570 almost a quarter-century into the reign of this complicated, frightening figure. It is the oprichnina, the bloodiest spell of Ivan’s authority: years of torture, purges, and political violence vividly symbolized by the tsar’s black-clad personal Gestapo, the oprichniki.
A dangerous time to draw breath, but a particularly dangerous time for any boyar, men of the feudal nobility whom Ivan set his iron hand to mastering. This, after all, was the historical task of monarchs at this time, and it was everywhere accomplished with bloodshed.
For Ivan, having come of age an orphan at the mercy of rival boyars, it was a vengeful personal obsession.
Already stung by the defection — and subsequent nasty correspondence — of one such noble, Andrei Kurbsky, Ivan was downright paranoid about disloyalty during the long-running Livonian War against Muscovy’s western neighbors, Poland, Lithuania and Sweden.
Ivan became ever readier to equate dissent with treason and to ascribe his military reverses to conspiracies on the part of his aristocratic commanders, rather than to the shortcomings of his war-machine in general. A vicious circle thus emerged – of military failures; suspected treachery; the suspects’ fear of condemnation and liquidation, and flight abroad.*
Taking it into his head that the ancient, rival city of Novgorod — one of the cradles of Russian civilization — was scheming to deliver itself to the newly-formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ivan led an army there that in early 1570 massacred thousands of Novgorodians.**
He wasn’t done yet.
Returning to Moscow with his blood up, Ivan subjected his numerous Novgorodian prisoners to a savage regimen meant to uncover the extent of their nefarious doings. And it wasn’t long before the locals (who were, after all, just as suspect in Ivan’s eyes) got swept up in it, too. Politically-motivated magistrates with torture-induced confessions and denunciations did the dreadful things they always do.
This date in 1570 turned out to be the affair’s crowning carnival of barbarism.
“The Russian capital had seen many horrors in its time,” wrote Soviet-era historian A.A. Zimin (cited in this biography of Ivan IV). “But what happened in Moscow on 25 July, in all its cruelty and sadistic refinement, outdid all that had gone before and can perhaps be explained only by the cruel temperament and the sick imagination of Ivan the Terrible.”
Nevertheless, he would be the first and most prominent victim on Red Square this date. Viskovaty’s rival Andrei Shchelkalov, who succeeded Viskovaty as the foreign affairs minister, neatly stitched up the senior diplomat for being in on the Novgorod “plot” as well as more exotic schemes to hand over southern cities to Turkey and the Khanate.
On July 25, in the middle of the market-place, eighteen scaffolds were erected, a number of instruments of torture were fixed in position, a large stack of wood was lighted, and over it an enormous cauldron of water was placed. Seeing these terrible preparations, the people hurried away and hid themselves wherever they could, abandoning their opened shops, their goods and their money. Soon the place was void but for the band of opritchniks gathered round the gibbets, and the blazing fire. Then was heard the sound of drums: the Tsar appeared on horseback, accompanied by his dutiful son, the boyards, some princes, and quite a legion of hangmen. Behind these came some hundreds of the condemned, many like spectres; others torn, bleeding, and so feeble they scarce could walk. Ivan halted near the scaffolds and looked around, then at once commanded the opritchniks to find where the people were and drag them into the light of day. In his impatience he even himself ran about here and there, calling the Muscovites to come forward and see the spectacle he had prepared for them, promising all who came safety and pardon. The inhabitants, fearing to disobey, crept out of their hiding-place, and, trembling with fright, stood round the scaffold. Some having climbed on to the walls, and even showing themselves on the roofs, Ivan shouted: “People, ye are about to witness executions and a massacre, but these are traitors whom I thus punish. Answer me: Is this just?” And on all sides the people shouted approval. “Long live our glorious King! Down with traitors! Goiesi, Goida!”
Ivan separated 180 of the prisoners from the crowd and pardoned them. Then the first Clerk of the Council unrolled a scroll and called upon the condemned to answer. The first to be brought before him was Viskovati, and to him he read out: “Ivan Mikhailovich, formerly a Counsellor of State, thou hast been found faithless to his Imperial Highness. Thou has written to the King Sigismund offering him Novgorod; there thy first crime!” He paused to strike Viskovati on the head, then continued reading: “And this thy second crime, not less heinous than thy first, O ungrateful and perfidious one! Thou hast written to the Sultan of Turkey, that he may take Astrakhan and Kazan,” whereupon he struck the condemned wretch twice, and continued: “Also thou hast called upon the Khan of the Krim Tartars to enter and devastate Russia:† this thy third crime.” Viskovati called God to witness that he was innocent, that he had always served faithfully his Tsar and his country: “My earthly judges will not recognize the truth; but the Heavenly Judge knows my innocence! Thou also, O Prince, thou wilt recognise it before that tribunal on high!” Here the executioners interrupted, gagging him. He was then suspended, head downwards, his clothes torn off, and, Maluta Skutarov, the first to dismount from his horse and lead the attack, cut off an ear, then, little by little, his body was hacked to pieces.
The next victim was the treasurer, Funikov-Kartsef, a friend of Viskovati, accused with him of the same treason, and as unjustly. He in his turn said to Ivan, “I pray God will give thee in eternity a fitting reward for thy actions here!” He was drenched with boiling and cold water alternately, until he expired after enduring the most horrible torments. Then others were hanged, strangled, tortured, cut to pieces, killed slowly, quickly, by whatever means fancy suggested. Ivan himself took a part, stabbing and slaying without dismounting from his horse. In four hours two hundred and been put to death, and then, the carnage over, the hangmen, their clothes covered with blood, and their gory, steaming knives in their hands, surrounded the Tsar and shouted huzzah. “Goida! Goida! Long live the Tsar! Ivan for ever! Goida! Goida!” and so shouting they went round the market-place that Ivan might examine the mutilated remains, the piled-up corpses, the actual evidences of the slaughter. Enough of bloodshed for the one day? Not a bit of it. Ivan, satiated for the moment with the slaughter, would gloat over the grief of the survivors. Wishing to see the unhapy wives of Funikov-Kartsef and of Viskovati, he forced a way into their apartments and made merry over their grief! The wife of Funikov-Kartsef he put to the torture, that he might have from her whatever treasures she possessed. Equally he wished to torture her fifteen-year-old daughter, who was groaning and lamenting at their ill fortune, but contented himself with handing her over to the by no means tender mercies of the Tsarevich Ivan. Taken afterwards to a convent, these unhappy beings shortly died of grief — it is said.
Thanks to this sort of wholesale purging, Ivan the Terrible became in the 20th century something of an allegorical shorthand for Joseph Stalin, whose own reign of terror was a touchier subject for direct commentary. By that same token, and capturing the multifaceted meaning of the word Grozny, (both awful and awe-inspiring) Soviet patriotic mythology co-opted Ivan and his allegedly farsighted cruelty as a state- and nation-builder.
Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible — a planned trilogy of films of which only two were completed, due to Stalin’s distaste for his greatest director’s interpretation — captures a view of Ivan IV Grozny from the shadow of wartime Stalinist Russia. (The two extant films can be seen in their entirety on YouTube, and are well worth the watching.)
The more conventional take is that, especially by his later years, the guy’s tyrannical paranoia had metastasized enough to send him plum off his rocker. In 1581, that favorite son who had accompanied Tsar Ivan to Novgorod, and to Red Square on this date, piqued his father’s rage during an argument — and in a fury, Ivan struck him dead.
Detail view (click for the full, gorgeous canvas) of Ilya Repin‘s emotional painting of Ivan the moment after he has mortally wounded his son. Incited to his own act of lunacy by the tsar’s riveting madman expression, iconographer and Old Believer Abram Balashov slashed these faces with a knife (image) in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1913.
The capable young heir’s senseless death effectively spelled the end for Russia’s Rurikid Dynasty descended from the half-mythical Norse founder of Rus’, Rurik. That argument from order and progress in favor of Ivan’s ferocity inconveniently runs up against the fact that what he actually bequeathed to the next generations of Russians was the rudderless, war-torn Time of Troubles, when rival claimants struggled for the throne.
Ivan IV is sure to remain a controversial, compelling figure for many a year to come. Released just a few months ago as of this writing, and in a time when Ivan comparisons are coming back into vogue for the ominous contemporary Russian state, Pavel Lungin’s Tsar (review) mounts a gory critique of its subject.
* Jonathan Shepard, book review in The Historical Journal, vol. 25, no. 2 (June 1982).
** Novgorod by 1570 was not as important as it had once been, but Ivan’s sack massively depopulated the city, essentially destroying its remaining strength as an independent commercial center.
† The allied Ottoman Turks and Crimean Khanate did in fact devastate Russia (and pillage Moscow) the very next year.